RICHMOND — In the days after Virginia’s uninspiring win over Morgan State on Wednesday, Coach Tony Bennett kept reminding his young team that their play hadn’t been up to snuff lately. It appears, however, his warnings fell on deaf ears.
Any momentum Virginia enjoyed through the first two months of the season came to a stunning halt Saturday when the Cavaliers lost to Old Dominion, 63-61, in the nightcap of Saturday’s first Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic at Richmond Coliseum.
The defeat snapped Virginia’s eight-game winning streak and means the Cavaliers (9-3) will finish nonconference play with a record of 0-3 against the Colonial Athletic Association after setbacks against George Mason and Delaware last month. But considering the Monarchs entered Saturday’s game with a 1-10 record, this latest misstep was particularly devastating.
“I think we should have their attention,” said Bennett, who was uncharacteristically animated all game long, whether it be about his team’s play or the officiating. “I hope they weren’t feeling [good about] themselves: ‘Hey, we won [eight] in a row.’ I would hope that’s not the case, but if it was, this will certainly bring you back to reality.”
The disappointing part for the Cavaliers is that their biggest breakdowns occurred on defense, where Bennett’s teams usually thrive. Virginia could not contain Old Dominion’s guards off the dribble even though the Monarchs were without starting point guard Keenan Palmore (concussion) and senior forward Nick Wright (flu).
But after a sluggish first half, the Cavaliers led by 10 points with just more than 14 minutes remaining after junior Joe Harris (team-high 18 points) nailed a three-pointer. That, however, set the stage for a barrage by Old Dominion’s Dimitri Batten.
The redshirt sophomore scored 14 points, including four three-pointers, during a 21-4 run that put Monarchs up 45-38 with less than eight minutes left. Batten had just six total points in Old Dominion’s previous four games, but finished with a game-high 23 points. Guard Aaron Bacote added 17 points.
“He started hitting a lot of jumpers. A few of them were contested, but a lot of them, he just kind of got clean looks,” Harris said of Batten. “He probably played better than he had all season.”
“Honestly, we were just being lazy,” added redshirt freshman Teven Jones, who started at point guard in place of injured senior Jontel Evans for the third straight game.
The Cavaliers managed to claw back into the game behind the play of freshman Evan Nolte. He scored 11 of his 15 points during the final 7 minutes 25 seconds and twice cut Virginia’s deficit to one in the final 30 seconds. But Old Dominion hit 8 of 10 free throws in the final minute, and Virginia’s best chance to tie the game fell short once a replay review confirmed Jones had a foot on the three-point line on a baseline jumper with five seconds to go.
The Cavaliers finished the game shooting 39.6 percent from the field, and it was clear they missed Evans’s presence. Bennett talked of how his players looked “lethargic” Saturday and that the offense “labored” through its sets without a point guard capable of penetrating into the lane.
It didn’t help that forward Akil Mitchell was held to 3-for-10 shooting from the field and sophomore Darion Atkins mustered just four points and four rebounds before fouling out late. The Cavaliers were outrebounded, 39-32.
That, it seems, turned into the wake-up call Bennett had been trying to deliver for days.
“We knew this was coming,” Jones said. “The whole week we kind of had a slow practice and Coach Bennett was getting on us, trying to warn us. But I guess we didn’t catch those warning signs and this is what happens.”